If there's one message Heather Kooiman wishes she could share about the Idle No More movement, it's "listen."
The Smithville nurse is currently living and working in Attawapiskat, the small northern Ontario First Nations community whose chief, Theresa Spence, has set out on a hunger strike to force a meeting with the Federal Government and bring more attention to treaty rights. Kooiman says living in Attawapiskat has brought her a new perspective that people in the rest of the province can't understand.
"There's so much we're unaware of without seeing how people live up here," she said.
"Through Idle No More, people are starting to hear about it, but it's still so different from going to the community, meeting people and hearing their stories."
After receiving her undergraduate degree at a school in the U.S., Kooiman earned a Master's Degree in nursing from McGill University. During that period of study, she did a work placement on the First Nations reserve of Lac-Rapide in northern Quebec, and realized this was the type of work she wanted to pursue.
"The role of the nurse is larger and expanded. There's more responsibility and it's more challenging," she said.
'Some of their stories, especially from older people, are really quite sad.' —Heather Kooiman, Attawapiskat nurse
Last winter she worked in Attawapiskat for the first time and fell in love with the people and the community. She returned last August and has been there ever since.
Though she sometimes feels like she works non-stop — her small hospital employs about a dozen health care workers and they're often understaffed — Kooiman says the people make her feel at home, even teaching her how to play broomball (a game played on ice similar to hockey) so she could join the women's league.
But as much as she enjoys her life and work on the reserve, Kooiman sees first-hand a lot of the struggles the community faces.
"Some of their stories, especially from older people, are really quite sad," she said. "You hear about them living through residential schools. They've been through a lot and you're put in a place where you feel humbled."
Problems in Attawapiskat have received widespread media attention in recent years. In 2011, Chief Spence declared a state of emergency due to a housing crisis in the community. She also drew attention in December when she embarked on her hunger strike. Spence has been on a diet of fish broth and medicinal tea for the past four weeks.
An audit of the financial records of the Attawapiskat First Nations reserve has raised questions about the situation there, as well.
All of this attention has contributed to the controversial Idle No More movement gaining steam. According to the movement's mission statement, protesters are trying to "stop the Harper government from passing more laws and legislation that will further erode treaty and indigenous rights and the rights of all Canadians."
Protesters are concerned with Bill C-45 — also known as the second omnibus budget bill. They say changes to the Indian Act, Navigation Protection Act and Environmental Assessment Act infringe on treaty rights. Many are angered by what they call a lack of consultation with indigenous peoples. The movement has also expressed concern about other acts and bills from the Harper government.
Kooiman worries that many people back home in the Hamilton area simply aren't aware of the issues surrounding the Idle No More protests. She plans to share a message of listening and understanding when she next visits the area.
"If you only see the outside of things, you can have a negative view," she said.
"It's easier when you've never met someone or heard these stories. But I've learned so much and benefitted so much that now it's difficult for me to understand the other side."